Raising Social Security age not a fair fix

SOCIAL SECURITY BUSH
Lower-income people tend to have shorter life spans and thus collect less from Social Security.

Would raising the Social Security age fix the system?

Not in an equitable manner, says Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, armed with data showing that lower-income folks tend not to live as long, and thus do not collect as much from Social Security.

In fact, Social Security favors the "One Percent," who have more income and better health care. As a result, high-income Americans live longer and thus reap more benefits from Social Security.

Full benefits begin at 65 or 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954. Americans can begin collecting as early as age 62, but with benefits reduced up to 30 percent, according to the Social Security Administration.

Retirement planners advise waiting until age 70 to claim Social Security, but lower-income Americans argue that they can't afford to.

The life span gap between rich and poor is widening, according to the study by Burtless, Barry Bosworth, and Kan Zhang.

They found life expectancy for the bottom 10 percent of male wage earners turning 66 has risen 0.7 years compared with what was expected for their low-income counterparts 30 years ago. For the top 10 percent of male wage earners, however, their life spans rose 8.1 years in the same period.

The richest Americans - the so-called One Percent - gained three years of life expectancy from 2001 to 2014 alone, while the poorest had little gain (0.3 years).

"Improvements in life expectancy have been highly unequal, and low-income workers have experienced much smaller gains in life expectancy when compared with workers further up the income scale," noted Burtless, co-author of the report "Later Retirement, Inequality in

Old Age, and the Growing Gap in Longevity Between Rich and Poor."

"This argument [raising the retirement age] would be more convincing if increases in life expectancy were spread evenly across the workforce. They are not," he added.

"It seems unfair to ask low-earners to take a benefit cut to pay for the added benefits high-earners enjoy because of longer life spans," Burtless said.

Is Social Security going broke? Not by a long shot.

The Social Security trustees reported this summer that the program is fully funded for the next 18 years, 95 percent funded for the next 25 years, 87 percent funded for the next 50 years, and 84 percent funded for the next 75 years.

The country can afford to keep Social Security at its current level - and expand it - wrote Nancy Altman, founding co-director of Social Security Works.

"At its most expensive, at the end of the 21st century, the cost is projected to be just 6.1 percent of GDP. That is considerably less, as a percentage of GDP, than Germany, France, Japan, Austria, and most other industrialized countries spend," she wrote in an article for Huffington Post.

Her Social Security research encourages expanding for cost-of-living increases and increasing the minimum benefit to keep retirees out of poverty.

"Social Security is the most universal, secure, fair, and efficient source of retirement income that we have, providing a guaranteed, inflation-protected source of income that one will never outlive," Altman added.

Currently, the average annual benefit received by Social Security's 60 million beneficiaries is less than $15,000 a year.

Still there are risks to Social Security - among them identity theft online.

Starting in August 2016, Social Security is adding a new step to protect privacy as a "my Social Security" user.

When you sign in at ssa.gov/myaccount with your user name and password, Social Security will ask you to add your text-enabled cell-phone number.

In July, the Acting Inspector General of Social Security, Gale Stallworth Stone, warned of a suspicious email "phishing" scheme.

Several hundred employees of a private company, with offices across the country, received a phone email message that appeared to be from the Social Security Administration.

The email subject line read, "Review Your Social Security Activity," and while the email sender displayed is "Social Security Administration," the corresponding email address is ceriley@centurytel.net.

"Don't provide your Social Security number, bank account numbers, or other personal information, including account passwords, over the internet or by telephone unless you know and trust the source requesting it," Stone said.

But not every senior has a cellphone, so if you have questions, contact a local Social Security office, or call Social Security's toll-free customer service number at 1-800-772-1213 or Social Security Fraud Hotline (https://oig.ssa.gov/report) by phone at 1-800-269-0271.

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808@erinarvedlund